Simulation Theory tour
TD Garden, Boston MA, April 10, 2019
ANCKORN: Muse enjoyed a brief moment of cool back when “Knights of Cydonia” rode the lands, but they’ve never been cool since. Liked by The Wrong Type of Nerd, Italian guys with great hair, and people who have very serious conversations about guitars in magazines called things like Fretful Gentleman Monthly, they seem to be trying a little too hard to be good at playing rock music for Serious Music Types.
When I suggested we cover the Boston leg of Muse’s latest world tour in support of new album Simulation Theory, I swear that you could feel the lip-curling from Mutant HQ from space. In fact, the first-ever picture of a Supermassive Black Hole was revealed to the world on the night of the concert. I’m not saying the gravitational pull of all that sneering caused the phenomenon, just as Matthew Bellamy wasn’t definitely abducted by aliens in the woods of Devon, but still…
In fact, Simulation Theory—and Muse as a band—fits in perfectly with both the common Mutant themes of shadowy government conspiracy, mind control and paranormal sci-fi, not to mention the site’s love of all things synthwave. A little too well for me at first, I being admittedly more a fan of Bombastic Metal Muse than Electro-Funk Muse. (They’ve been called a Queen cover band in the past, but with actual Queen dutifully stuck in their “Adam Lambert Has Three Daddies” furrow for the foreseeable, I’ll take Muse-Queen any day.) Still, the synthy aspects grew on me, and early spoilers of the most extravagant yet of their famously elaborate stage shows had me pretty excited to catch this live. Mike, of course, liked synthwave before it was cool, and I was curious to see how someone steeped in the movement’s tropes would react to this attempt by an established rock band to plow the neon furrow.
“Is it OK for a stadium rock band to appropriate from a smaller scene?” some turd in flannel might ask about now. “Bowie did it, pencil-neck, so eat my dick-shaped stage!” I reply, before exploding out through the back of a giant cyborg skeleton’s head in my Lamborghini. (This is why I’m not asked to write here very often. Pretend I said something profound about the symbiotic relationship of capitalism and pop culture instead.)
I’m probably not even using the term synthwave correctly. It’s actually Neoncore, or Gridhop, or Diagonal-Triple-Moroder-with-a-double-axel-Hold-the-Mayowave.
GRASSO: Yeah, I definitely sat up and paid attention to Muse way back in the Old Times (thirteen years ago!!!) when someone linked to the sci-fi-meets-kung-fu-meets-spaghetti western video for their 2006 single “Knights of Cydonia” off of Black Holes and Revelations on Livejournal—and it absolutely riveted me. Best winking genre pastiche music video since “Sabotage!“ I shouted to no one in particular, as cyborg chicks on unicorns handed magical compact discs to kung fu gunfighters, all to the silent sound of a dignified eagle’s gasp. But after the initial splash of “Knights,” I, like many Americans, stopped paying attention; that is, until we unpacked all your CDs when you moved in a year later and I saw multiple jewel cases branded with Muse’s impeccably tasteful band logo.
Yes, Muse-qua-their music has never quite been my thing. I am not much for rock-and-roll arena bombast, while that very bombast is, as you note, your musical bread and butter. But I’ve always enjoyed their stuff in passing—they have an undeniable ear for catchy-ass melodies and as a trio (Matthew Bellamy on lead vocals and guitar, Chris Wolstenholme on bass and harmonies, and Dominic Howard on drums) have always punched way above their weight in the genre of prog-pop supergroup. (I would always much rather listen to a Muse album than a Rush one, I’m terribly sorry to report.)
When I saw the promotional materials for their Simulation Theory album, though, my heart sank. They’re doing an ’80s pastiche! Bisexual lighting! Outrun Lamborghinis! Neon grids! They got the poster artist for Stranger Things to do the album cover art, for Christ’s sake! So, knowing I was going to have to go to the TD Garden and see a show that looked for all the world like a multimedia Ready Player One, I was, shall we say, less than excited. But hey, I had to go in with an open mind. This was a birthday gift for my goodly wife, and these are the things we do for love.
I should have despised the Simulation Theory stage show as much as I despised Ready Player One, but for some reason I just couldn’t. First of all, I will concede the obvious: these guys can play, and they can rock an arena, even if the North American fans don’t come anywhere near the Europeans and Latin Americans in terms of devotion (I believe you called the Boston crowd “stick-in-the-muds”?). Matthew Bellamy’s legacy as the Son of the Guy What Was in the Tornados is evident in his guitar stylings; never boring, but definitely possessing of a trademark sound, a mid-’60s surf-boogie that shimmers under layers of effects. It’s probably not surprising that the other musical group we’ve gone to see together voluntarily, Man or Astroman?, trades in very similar motifs, musically and visually, as Muse. Of course, they have indie cred where Muse has none, and we all know I’m a big annoying indie snob when I want to be.
But yes: big arena shows. I’ve never been a huge fan of these kinds of multimedia pop music stage shows, with their choreographed stage antics and visual effects (my first concert ever being U2’s 1992 Zoo TV tour notwithstanding; in my defense, I was only 16 years old.) But like U2’s use of East German Trabant cars and their self-conscious evocation of the end of the Cold War/the end of history during that tour, Muse uses the signifiers of the 1980s seamlessly in their greater musical oeuvre, which, as you note, has always investigated greater themes of surveillance, sustainability, and technology run rampant. When Muse can pull a chestnut from their back catalogue like “Uprising” or “The 2nd Law: Unsustainable” and it fits seamlessly in the thematics of this Simulation Theory tour, it goes to show you that they’re no frauds or johnny-come-latelies to investigating how the old promises of technological transcendence all seem like a mirage and a bitter joke today. At the very least, Brexit-agnostic Matt Bellamy and company are no more politically suspect than newly-minted neoliberal darling Thom Yorke. (Yes. I went there.)
ANCKORN: Hey, I voluntarily went to see The Decemberists with you too! They sing revenge ballads that take part inside giant whales, and not just about their feelings (of sadness). I’ll admit it here—this was my first ever stadium show, and I feel that if you’re going to pop your stadium cherry, it should go off like a confetti cannon. I’m not immune to music snobbery of a kind, and during years past this has manifested itself as a refusal to attend shows in venues that held more than twelve thin goths named Allen, or to attend music festivals. God knows why; music festivals are essentially stadium shows where you have to shit in a plastic coffin (by this I mean a portaloo, not some kind of dirty protest against Rob Zombie).
Anyway, first stadium show. After the initial vertigo of the balcony seats wore off I enjoyed an enthusiastic opening by Walk the Moon. They told us they had been big Muse fans since they were kids.
This wasn’t the first point during the night when I realized that I was basically the old fuck from the library in Logan’s Run, and that the largely younger crowd might reverently touch my wizened face in awe as they climbed over my arthritic knees to their assigned seats, but yeah. Young crowd. (In a vitally important aside, the kid working security told me my that while everyone else looked boring, my outfit “gave her life,” so yeah, I’ve still got it. If giving someone life is a good thing? Why is everything so heavy in the future?)
So yeah, a youngish crowd, with a small but decent smattering of older, original fans who were actually alive in the ’80s and not just being conceived in the back row of Dirty Dancing, an act of procreation referred to in the style of the time as “carrying a watermelon.” No I did not make this up. It’s a true ’80s fact.
The night before we’d watched some of the Live At Rome Olympic Stadium gig and Mike had a small Indie Blowout over the heavy-handed, overly literal actor-ing segments (overly literal music videos Give Me Life! See? Learning.) “Will there be stuff like this at the show tomorrow?” Mike asked, rather like one might ask if there would be government mind control drugs in the stadium hotdogs (there’s probably a Muse song about this.)
Well, of course there was! But the stage show managed to be both more over the top and more tasteful than previous efforts. We started with a run of tracks from Simulation Theory, and the mood was established early as a squad of future soldier style dancers marched onstage with neon-fricking-trombones, and Matthew Bellamy rose up through the stage to shoot lasers into the eyes of the assembled worshippers via a Thanos glove.
Later there were floating spacemen, giant dancing exo-suits, and a nod to Close Encounters of the Third Kind with Bellamy exchanging guitar riffs with the spaceship/stage rig.
I believe you called them “cheeky bitches” on Twitter at around this point?
GRASSO: Actually, Jenny, I called them “sassy bitches.” But the point stands. The moments in the show where you could audibly hear me rolling my eyes over the 110 dB stacks were probably moments like these, where the visual and sonic references were right there on the wall with no cloaks. Yes, they quoted the five tones from Close Encounters, as holy a text for me as any; yes, their video setup and stage show showed an array of images quoting (but I will concede, quoting indirectly!) from the Holy Canon of Eighties: Terminator, Tron, Aliens, neon grids and palm trees (ahem), all the greats.
But I think the reason why Muse’s use of these signifiers didn’t bug me like Ready Player One bugs me is because Muse were at least clever about it. They subsumed all that sometimes-clichéd iconography into their own oeuvre. The video interstitials told the tale of a vengeful undead cyborg who was, I think, eventually crushed into a cube and came back from the dead (yes yes, in INFLATABLE FORM) to take its revenge on Matt Bellamy. When the giant inflatable skull-headed robot came out for the encore, I gave you A Look for the history books. And yes, of course, that inflatable itself is a visual quote of both Iron Maiden’s Eddie and Pink Floyd’s inflatable “Another Brick in the Wall” teacher (hat-tip to Richard for the reminder here), not to mention Spinal Tap’s “half-inflated Dark Lord.”
But okay, whatever. The band and their art/stage designers know their Eighties pop culture. If you take a look at the half-dozen music videos produced for the album, you’ll see them playing with an interlinked narrative using dozens more signifiers of The Decade: Back to the Future, Thriller, more Terminator, Outrun, even fucking Rocky IV. The album and the tour are a feast, overstuffed and visually dazzling, and covert enough to melt a retro-grinch’s too-small heart. And yeah, ultimately all the stage hysterics were… fine. When an actual 1980s arcade cabinet rose from the rostrum during the “second movement” (snicker) of the darksynth-lite “Algorithm,” I sneered, but deep down, I also smiled. This tour and album are a blizzard of references from Muse’s musical and pop culture life stories and damn it if they didn’t eventually grudgingly win me over, mostly because they never seem to take themselves too too seriously. They’re all just a little too old for these kinds of shenanigans, and somehow that’s oddly endearing.
More interesting to me were the musical quotes throughout the show. Bellamy’s a tried-and-true riff-master, and it’s apparently his wont to quote his favorite riffs at length within his own songs, in true arena rock style. So apart from the TWO Nirvana riffs (which I didn’t actually ID) and the obligatory obeisance to Zeppelin (“Immigrant Song” and “Kashmir,” another eye roll from me), I half-heard a faintly familiar crunching heavy riff during the self-indulgent encore with the giant inflatable puppet. Once I’d had a chance to check the set list, yes, it was a quote from “Wilma’s Rainbow,” from little-remembered late-80s/early-’90s short-haired indie metal darlings Helmet, who I saw back in the day opening for Ministry. Likewise, in Bellamy’s “Fly”-like sunglasses that electronically display lyrics during the song “Madness,” I saw Muse’s explicit debt to early-’90s U2. I had slowly come to the realization over the course of the past week that these dudes from Muse are all basically, totally my age, and it shows. Let’s be painfully honest here: this is probably the kind of show, visually and aesthetically, that I’d put on if I were lucky enough to be an arena rock god, especially that inspired pre-show use of Art Bell’s radio show theme, “Chase” by Giorgio Moroder, right before the lights went down.
ANCKORN:The inflatable has a name, and it is Murph. You did indeed give me A Look upon his majestic appearance, but, COME ON, that was cool as all fuck. And served as a nice culmination of the show’s narrative. (Look at me going to a show with a narrative more apparent than “The lead singer gets increasingly drunk and atonal, and we leave early because the last train home departs from Tunbridge Wells at 6.30pm.” We’ve come a long way… me.) It was also a clear delineation between the show’s metal culmination with the aforementioned “Metal Medley” and the band’s usual, but no less highly anticipated finisher “Knights of Cydonia.”
The staging supported but never distracted, and hit enough visual signifiers to enhance the experience (not the VIP enhanced experience sadly; being writers and having no money we did NOT shell out for the VR video game/souvenir lunchbox/meeting the band experience. Hey, it’s probably for the best. I have a strong track record of avoiding telling celebrities I deeply admire they have “very soft hands” at the last second, and I want to keep my streak going).
I was surprised by how much you enjoyed it to be honest. Or WAS I? Oh, what’s this? Is shit about to get real? Is this a sealed envelope containing your probable reactions to key parts of the stage show prepared in advance and sent forward into the future by a sentient computer? Partially!
Yes. Shit is about to get real.
There will probably be a neon grid during this part. Or at least there would be if I could locate my pirated photoshop disk.
GRASSO: 1. “Mike will be super mad at ST (Stranger Things) music.”
Hey, I like S U R V I V E! I even saw them live a couple of years ago! There was sort of a “greatest hits” of synth music played before the show (after Walk the Moon’s opening set), including the aforementioned Moroder, which I quite enjoyed. That didn’t bug me too much!
2. “Mike will be mad about Close Encounters because he thinks he’s meant to like it.”
Well, you nailed this one.
3. “Mike will be turned on/intimidated by Matthew Bellamy’s stern Devonshire eyes.”
ANCKORN: David Tennant looks like a lank sock with button eyes sewn on. I suddenly hope that we are caged in Simulations.